The online education fairy.

14 07 2012

There’s nothing like leaving the country in order to turn you into a citizen of the world. I got an invitation last week to be a panelist for a Guardian online chat entitled, “Freelance, part-time or fixed-term: Is this the future of academic careers?”. Since it was actually much more convenient to do that at Noon London time while here in South Korea than back in Colorado, I decided to give it a go. You can see my comments and everyone else’s at the bottom of the above link.

While it was my Denver Post op-ed about adjuncts that got me an invite to the panel, I spent an awful lot of my time writing about the effects of online education on academic employment of all kinds. About three quarters of the way in, this comment popped up:

I have championed the need for a new academic performativity one where technologies are embodied, multi-media content is embedded and education is co-created interactive experience. Most importantly, rather than hidden behind the hallowed walls of institutions where authority of educators is to be maintained at all costs and dry sanitized content masks as education, let the world be the judge through the conduit of technology. Intensify the gaze put the wares on show and let the market decide. Again although this might smack of neo-con ideology in education I am vociferously against that stance – the problem is it’s here and been here for ages. I advocate this techno-transformation and new performativity because it will kill the virus of self-interest and institutional protectionism, protect the idea of education and project aspirations, which should be for the many not the few.

I actually think this principle is a good one when carried just to syllabi. However, the faith exhibited here in both markets and in the extraordinary awesomeness of our online future (albeit from the opposite political perspective that I usually encounter) reminded me of the Confidence Fairy.

I think it was Paul Krugman who first used the term “Confidence Fairy” to describe wishful thinking in support of economic policies that translate into permanent austerity. Here’s the economist Paul Davidson, who actually lived two doors down from me while I was growing up (his son was my favorite babysitter), formally defining the Confidence Fairy at Naked Capitalism:

Conservative economists and their friends like to trot out a mythical being whenever they want to make arguments that favor an economy built for the wealthy at the expense of ordinary people. This imaginary being, known as the Confidence Fairy, is only happy when capitalists are given free rein to do whatever they want – even if it brings us to the brink of a global economic meltdown.

His counter-suggestion is direct stimulative spending à la John Maynard Keynes. Some of that spending might actually go towards education:

The fact is that even if this large, needed Keynesian stimulus spending were financed by large federal deficits, we would not be impoverishing our children. Instead we would be investing in the future of our children by providing them with an adequate educational system so they could be qualified to take on future productive hi-tech jobs.

Yet instead of more government contributions put towards higher education, we’re getting less. Instead of spending what’s left on proven methods of education, government funds in programs like Pell Grants are going towards efforts aimed at disrupting higher education rather than supporting it. Universities (public, private and for-profit) are spending all this money on technology in order to expand the market for their product whether an online education actually helps those new students or not and whether or not there are any jobs available for them once they graduate. That’s why I think it’s time to recognize that a lot of smart people whom you’d probably expect better from under other circumstances actually believe in the online education fairy.

Professors are workers too. The American economy would improve far faster if we gave every adjunct in the country a living wage than if we sent every new freshman to cyber clown college for free. The adjuncts would use that money to buy homes, cars and meals that are more expensive than ramen. On the other hand, most of the cyber clown college graduates would still be looking for work after they’ve graduated because there still wouldn’t be enough jobs to go around.

Encouraging students to enroll in online clown college or MOOCs (for-profit or otherwise) in order to retrain themselves for a brighter future that doesn’t exist is not only bad policy, it’s just cruel. The fact that so many students go into debt up to their eyeballs in order to attend college of any kind only makes it crueler still. If American higher education were really making the transition to an online future for the sake of students, why don’t online courses cost less than their inefficient, face-to-face counterparts?

Yet students are hardly the only victims here. The jobs of too many working, family-supporting, taxpaying professors at all levels will be sacrificed the longer we insist that the online education fairy is real. Her partisans don’t even bother hiding this objective. Just look at Helen Dragas’ reading list. Apparently, she was particularly smitten with this Wall Street Journal op-ed which argued that:

Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive)—as has happened in every other industry—making schools much more productive.

More people with college degrees competing for the same limited number of jobs as before, and now they can join most of their professors on the unemployment line! Exactly how long are incoming students going to put up with that arrangement? Do we really want to find out? It’s as if everyone who’s been arguing that there’s a higher education bubble is using online education to manufacture that bubble in order to prove they were right in the first place.

Helen Dragas will be out of a job too when that bubble pops, but she can go back to selling real estate full time. The rest of us will have to live with the supposedly “creative” destruction that the online education fairy will wreak.

On the road to our glorious all-online higher ed utopia.

23 02 2012

Last summer, when I started blogging about educational technology in a big way for the first time, I was itching to do a post about online student course evaluations. Leslie M-B beat me to it in December with a useful and brave post that you should read here if you didn’t see it the first time around.

If your campus has gone this route already, you probably know the story. Student course evaluation system goes from pen and pencil to an outsourced online system. Since students no longer fill the forms out in class, response rates plummet. Such a small sample of students is no longer useful for evaluating anyone’s teaching performance (assuming they were ever useful in the first place). It’s a classic case of technology undercutting the purpose it was supposed to serve because of the law of unintended consequences.

Just yesterday, one of my friends in the business school (I do have a couple) cc’ed me into an e-mail conversation about the decision whether to renew our contract with our current online student course evaluation provider. She’s leading the drive to go back to pencil and paper as a way to revive response rates, but the folks making policy apparently have another idea. They want to switch vendors to a company that integrates its online evaluation product into Blackboard.

My opinion of Blackboard is extremely low. In fact, it might be lower than my opinion of online education in general since Blackboard destroys a functional educational paradigm rather than being based on one that’s cursed from the get-go. So I sent a note explaining that mandating anyone to use Blackboard would lead to a backlash that would make the one over online student course evaluations look tame by comparison. Mandate? Nobody’s going to force anyone to use Blackboard, explained my reply. It’s just that anyone who doesn’t use Blackboard will be stuck with 30% student response rates since they’ll have to use the old system.

Leave aside the fact that that response suggests that we’ll now be paying for two rather than just one online course evaluation system. [I'm still trying to get that confirmed.] For contingent or untenured faculty that might as well be a mandate because otherwise there’ll be no remotely valid data available to evaluate their teaching performance, and contingent faculty in particular live or die through their course evaluations.

More importantly, if they can make you use Blackboard what can’t they make you do? A long time ago, I asked, “Can they make you teach online?” Since my answer then was yes, I’m quite certain that they can make you teach on Blackboard too. But the more I think about it, the more this seems like a transitional stage on the road to our glorious all-online higher ed utopia.

For example, my university has an interest in making sure that we take attendance the first week so that they can catch student loan fraudsters. Does that mean we’ll have to use Blackboard’s gradebook? Students have an interest in seeing their grades during the course of the semester. Will we have to post all their grades there in the interests of “customer service?” Where exactly do our prerogatives as professors stop and their prerogatives as administrators begin?

I can’t answer that last question definitively, but I’m certain that technology is going to force us to answer that question again and again during the next few years. I’m also sure that if universities blindly embrace ever new edtech marvel that comes down the pike, we professors aren’t going to like the answer.

The 4-hour workweek (Higher education edition).

3 01 2012

For my first post of the new year, I’m going to try to cover all of my favorite subjects at one time.

Last Friday, I went to the Barnes and Noble in Colorado Springs with my family. Even before the Borders there closed, it was the biggest book store within fifty miles of us by far. Now I noticed they’ve put a toy store right in the middle of the place. Not coincidentally, they were pushing their Nook e-reader awfully hard. After all, why should I care how many physical books I can browse through if I have most every book Barnes and Noble sells at my fingertips without leaving my home? The Nook frees up space at Barnes and Nobles everywhere to serve other, more profitable functions. Best of all, it works without the need of living, breathing workers. All Barnes and Noble has to do is set up the infrastructure (which is presumably in place now), and then watch the cash roll in – both from e-books and the expensive Lego toys that so distracted my son’s attention that he didn’t pick up a single book the entire time we were in there.

Once I made this toys/e-book connection, I couldn’t help but think of Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ve mentioned Ferriss a few times before on this blog. His basic plan for anyone who wants to join the new rich is to start a web site that sells something people want, outsource the maintenance, then just answer your e-mail for four hours each week while you watch the money roll in too. If you read those old posts I just linked to, you’ll see that I used to find Ferriss funny. OK, I still find Ferriss funny, but I’m beginning to fear that this exact same mentality is beginning to creep into higher education and that’s not funny at all because a college education is a lot more expensive than one dumb book.

Where’s my proof? See Audrey Watters on the first robot graders. Or there’s this little nugget from EDUCAUSE:

[T]he issue of a federal definition of the credit hour as included in the regulations remains unresolved. Many in higher education view the definition as vague and unworkable, especially for online courses and programs. It is also considered to be a significant encroachment on the ability of institutions and academic programs to appropriately define the credit hour in relation to the demands of a given program.

When is an hour not an hour? When neither administrators nor students care how much anyone actually learns. Since it’s all about the paper, classes are something preventing you from learning how to do the tango in Argentina rather than a means to earning the money that will help you make that possible. I think this is the inevitable consequence of encouraging students to take classes at home in their pajamas. Teachers teach from anywhere, students learn from anywhere and college administrators work for only four hours per week since the university supposedly runs itself.

Now I’ve been on this techno-skeptic kick long enough to know that there are lots of dedicated teachers out there who believe that various technological doodads can make the learning experience better rather than worse. I, believe it or not, happen to be one of them. So is Cathy Davidson, who writes all the correct things in this follow up to that New York Times story on K12 Inc. that I covered a few weeks ago.

I really do agree with everything she writes there, just like I agree with just about everything that’s ever appeared over at Kate’s place. My problem with Davidson here is with her unspoken assumptions. As I read between the lines, she seems to assume that the people who run education at both the secondary and collegiate levels share our priorities and will respond to reasoned arguments about what constitutes a good education. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think most administrators share our priorities, nor will they care about whether we think technology will adversely affect the quality of our pedagogy if it is employed in the wrong ways.

I happen to like all the administrators that I work under at the moment, but as a class I think the vast majority of them have forgotten that learning is, to quote Davidson, “personal, intimate [and] specific,” rather than a product that can be mass-produced. I bet most of them envy the for-profit college sector (despite its obvious failings) rather than decry it. Indeed, if university administrators really cared about learning one of them would have tried to fix the adjunct problem in higher education a long, long time ago.

There! I think that’s all my favorite blogging topics in one post. Maybe I should just close up this blog now and try again in 2013. Wait! I’ve got a better idea! I’ll follow Ferriss’ advice and hire Your Man in India to write this blog and teach my classes for me. If only I believed I could ever learn how to tango.

“I didn’t know we had a pool.”

7 12 2011

While I’m still thinking about WALL-E, do you remember why both Mary and John, those two hover-chair bound colony dwellers who eventually discover each other, both say the line with which I’ve titled this post? It’s because they’re so obsessed with their video-phones that they have to have their technology turned off to see the real world around them.

It’s kind of the same thing with me and the 80% or so of my profession working in higher ed today who do not have tenure track jobs. I knew we had a large pool of contingent faculty in academia, but I recently remembered that I’ve forgotten them on this blog of late as I’ve been busy ranting (mostly) against the same kind of thing that kept Mary and John from seeing their pool at all.

My occasion for this realization was the appearance of Marc Bousquet at the Colorado AAUP‘s annual meeting. I drove to Boulder in a snowstorm last Saturday in order to meet him, hear him and get my copy of How the University Works signed. I can tell you without hesitation that it was well worth the difficult trip. There is absolutely no way I could possibly do his whole speech justice, but I do want to try to pick at least a few threads in what follows.

Marc began with an attack on the Duncan/Obama Walmart higher education policy of ruthless austerity designed to increase efficiency and improve access. [He didn't mention this, but tech is obviously part of that strategy.] Yet despite such policies, universities still do their best to accumulate capital. “Why does the university accumulate?,” Marc asked. Because they’re being run like businesses. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. It’s not that universities have copied businesses, Marc argues, instead businesses want to copy universities, especially their just-in-time supply of sub-minimum wage labor that yields an enormous amount of “profit” per employee.

To me, the most provocative part of Marc’s paper wasn’t when he suggested that all our professional organizations should be “occupied,” but that if we want to fix higher ed we should direct our solution towards the community college dropout. What’s the problem with community colleges? Too many students. Not enough resources. Underpaid, often under-qualified, overly-harried professors. Subsidize the students there and you’ll not only stimulate the economy, you’ll create plenty of demand for good higher education jobs to teach the new recruits.

Improving the number of research-oriented positions, on the other hand, would be like saving the filet mignon while the rest of the cow is getting ground into hamburger. Marc argues that the existing system is designed to keep the top 20% afloat while everyone else is left underwater. For example, as Marc explained in his book, there is no “job crisis” in the humanities. There is a just a demand crisis because administrators have restructured the kind of work available to most new Ph.D.s so that anyone in their right mind wouldn’t even want it.

Marc also spent a little bit of time addressing the ed tech question. The same professors who get their noses bent out of shape by the notion that they could be replaced by a video tape, he suggested, are often the same ones who are willing to teach courses with 400 students and five TAs (thereby eliminating three or four tenure track jobs right there). He’s right, you know. Without fixing the structural labor market problems in higher education, saving history teaching from a future of online mediocrity is still going to be a losing battle. We’ll just have face-to-face mediocrity instead.

Giant lecture halls and online classes both derive from the same kind of MBA thinking that’s ruining higher education all over the world. But flip that around for a moment: Solve the problem of MBA thinking and professors will be free to pick the kinds of educational technology tools that can enhance learning rather than merely make it cheaper.

Wouldn’t that be so cool?

The way of the dodo.

6 12 2011

You saw “WALL-E,” right? Everybody always gushes about the first forty minutes or so, the part set on the trashed future earth which feels like a Buster Keaton movie. My favorite part of the movie, however, takes place on that orbiting space colony of obese consumers. It’s when the captain runs a bit of dirt that dropped off WALL-E through the ship’s computer and as he gets the computer to define these terms he’s never heard of before, the computer gradually explains what earth used to be like. The captain then becomes determined to take his hover-chair bound passengers back to their home planet because of his growing obsession with dancing, farming and especially pizza. While a film about how awful it is to trash the earth isn’t all that radical in this day and age, a film about how we lose essential knowledge by letting technology do everything for us really is.

I thought of my favorite scene from WALL-E when I read Tenured Radical’s post about the need for the post office near Zenith to offer a sample filled-out envelope in order to illustrate to students there how to properly address snail mail:

This helpful aide, undoubtedly invented by our Zenith postal clerks in response to incoherently addressed envelopes, has truly convinced me that the US Postal Service will die. It has been generationally lapped by the digital world and it may, in fact, simply disappear as an institution in my lifetime.

That would be a shame, as despite the increasing percentage of junk mail in my mail box over the last few years, real hand-written letters do have their quaint charms. So does e-mail, the danger to which I can attest to from direct experience. Indeed, I have to come close to threatening my now 18-year-old daughter with bodily harm in order to get her to check her inbox despite the fact that that’s the way that her college acceptance letters are going to be delivered any day now.

In a similar vein, the nice folks at New Faculty Majority alerted me to this rather cute meme on Twitter that imagines a world where pencils are re-introduced into school classrooms as a new technology. This is from a blog post that breaks that 140 character wall:

Then there are the objections from the Tax Payers Alliance, and other pressure groups who have even gone on to the local TV station to complain that we are being irresponsible, and are wasting valuable tax payers money on purchasing a pencil for every child. ‘In my day’, said the TPA spokeperson, ‘we used slates and styluses, and shared them around, and we were happy. One pencil per child is simply a gimmick’. To be blunt, I think they are missing the point. I strongly believe that pencils are the future of learning, and the more untethered they are, the greater will be the flexibility of learning for all subjects across the curriculum.

Don’t you think it’s funny that in all this talk about progress, nobody in the edtech world wants to think about what is getting lost? Maybe we can we keep a “seed” bank somewhere so that we can revive perfectly good education ideas after they go extinct, the same way that those hover-chair people in WALL-E learned how to walk again.

The terrible thing about species extinctions is, of course, that they’re never coming back. As I understand it, after the last dodo died in 1662, people doubted whether such a creature ever even existed. Only after Lewis Carroll put one in Alice in Wonderland did the dodo begin to find its now firmly-entrenched spot in western culture as a symbol for extinction. Too bad there weren’t even any stuffed dodos left to give people a feel for what the world had actually lost.

If you pay close attention to the movie, you’ll see that the kids on that colony in WALL-E are being taught by a machine. I think the one line that their robot teacher delivers is something like, “Buy ‘n Large is your best friend.” Will that be on the (inevitably standardized) test?

I wonder if we as a society will remember enough about how teaching used to be in order to do it well again after education becomes the exclusive online purview of the Buy ‘n Large Corporation.

What if disrupting education isn’t such a hot idea after all?

28 11 2011

Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the Clayton Christensen interview I linked to last Monday, was the explicit comparison between techno-skeptical teachers and Luddites. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything edtech-related that was quite this smug:

In the early 19th century, British textile artisans protested the Industrial Revolution with the anti-technology “Luddite movement.” They believed mechanized looms would replace them and make their jobs obsolete. They were right.

Automation in the 19th century was the disruptive equivalent of high-speed digital technology today, which is replacing jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors at astonishing speeds. Self-checkout counters at the grocery store, complete with laser scanners to read bar codes, are starting to replace human cashiers. On the road, the advent of EZPass and other computerized toll machines are replacing human tollbooth collectors. The rise of online education could effectively render terrible teachers redundant, while bolstering the careers of talented educators. There’s a word for this; it’s progress.

But what if it isn’t?

What if education suffers when the technology of pedagogy changes? We can all agree that that’s within the realm of possibility, right? This issue seems especially relevant for online education in its current underdeveloped, often poorly-administered form. Why can’t we wait for online education 2.0 rather than embrace the current extremely rudimentary product that most colleges offer? Besides, who says teachers who don’t embrace every disruptive technology that comes down the pike are necessarily Luddites? Why not accept the ones we like and reject the ones we don’t? After all, it seems as if for every wonderful innovation like Zotero, there’s a Courseload out there too.

Writing at Tenured Radical, Judith C. Brown offers what I think is a pretty good rule for telling the difference between a good edtech innovation and a bad one:

The key to the success of incorporating digital approaches is to know when and how to use them for pedagogical purposes rather than simply to lower costs.

Teachers and professors are undoubtedly in the best position to tell one from the other. Unfortunately, since online education in America is primarily about lowering costs, they don’t exactly get consulted very often. It’s gotten so bad that even Anya Kamenetz, who I have had absolutely nothing nice to say about previously, can write:

Personally, I’d like to see more university presidents making faculty their partners, not adversaries, in the transformation process.

Does that make her a Luddite too? If some administrators actually listened to this advice, educational technology disruption might be a little less…ummmmm…disruptive. Unfortunately this whole line of argument is really just titling at windmills, because the educational disrupters aren’t interested in education. They’re interested in money.

But what about administrators who facilitate this kind senseless disturbance? They already have money. What they’re interested in is power. As Thomas Pynchon explained in reference to the relevance of the Luddites to the modern world in 1984:

The word “Luddite” continues to be applied with contempt to anyone with doubts about technology, especially the nuclear kind. Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines. As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D.D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way. We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time.

That’s why campus police have pepper spray. The only disruptions allowed on campus are in the classroom, as long as the faculty and the students aren’t the ones doing the disrupting.

Teaching through a bullhorn.

21 11 2011

You know an article has got to be pretty bad to get me to blog during Thanksgiving break, and this one certainly is:

At The Future of State Universities conference last month, which was sponsored by Academic Partnerships, Dr. Clayton Christensen spoke in front of 250 of the nation’s state university deans, provosts, presidents and faculty about the challenges universities face scaling their education models and how online education can serve students potentially better than brick and mortar classrooms.

That doesn’t sound too bad yet, but there are two warning signs of bad things to come: 1) Christensen was talking about “scaling” education. That means teaching more people at the same time. 2) “[S]erving students potentially better” is not the same as educating them.

It gets worse fast. For purposes of this post, though, I’ll skip some stuff that’s just pretty bad in order to focus on the worst part. This is a paraphrase of Christensen formed out of the interview that forms the bulk of the article:

Rather than teachers fearing for their jobs, they should see online education as liberating. Teachers no longer need to just stand up and lecture when students can absorb the content at home. And when a teacher doesn’t have to be consumed with delivering content they can become a coach and a tutor to the students and help them on an individual basis.

Liberating? Only if you mean liberate them from their ability to pay their bills. I don’t mean to defend lecturing here, although I could. This is about defending skilled labor. If Sal Khan is delivering your lectures, and you’re not; then your skills as a “coach” are much easier to replicate. That means more people can do your job, which means that your employer can pay you less.

That will hurt students too. In fact, let’s talk about what this kind of “coaching” means for the actual practice of teaching. Remember, Christensen is advocating scaling up education. Essentially, he wants bigger class sizes even though the students in those “classes” will be spread out all over the country and the world. How much individual attention can anybody get in a class with 100, 500 or even 35,000 students in it? Maybe some (but by no means all) college students can thrive in a sink-or-swim environment, but what about Kindergarteners?

More importantly, at least for purposes of this blog, what is it like to teach 100 students at once? Britney’s last point from the other day about typing being more onerous than talking goes triple from the teacher’s perspective. The only way teaching more students online than you would in an actual classroom could be liberating is if you deliberately offer them less attention than they would get in a face-to-face setting.

Online education is like teaching through a bullhorn. It’s a great way to reach a lot of people at the same time, but a terrible way to have real interactions with each student. That makes me wonder about this point, which comes immediately after the passage quoted above, even more:

“Rather than [online education] being a threat, it makes it a much more interesting profession,” says Christensen. “It’s really exciting because teachers can have deeper relationships with their students and not be so detached from them.”

Do you think Christensen is being deliberately deceptive or do you think he actually believes that slavery is freedom? Seriously, I don’t know. I also don’t know which answer to that question would be scarier.


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